A Chapter Closes

On May 31, 2012, a four-decade-long career of General Vijay Kumar Singh, culminating into the coveted appointment of Chief of Army Staff of 1.3-million-strong Indian Army ended. General’s professional and personal qualities took him to the dizzing heights.

Prior to taking over as Army Chief General Singh was perhaps not so well-known outside the Army circles, but his tenure, unlike his predecessors, has been so tumultuous that he became a household name.

What made General rebel against the establishment? More importantly, what made him survive so many intrigues and conspiracies, which could have prompted the government to sack him?

The General was like any other in the Army, a ‘happy go lucky’ officer till he came up for the promotion as an Army Commander, Eastern Command. The opportunity knocked at his door, but with a rider, as his seniors asked him to accept his date of birth as May 10, 1950 a year older than his actual one for getting promotion. General did ‘waver’ here and succumbed to the coercion. Subsequently, he was appointed as Chief of Army Staff. As Army Chief, General tried all channels of redressal to rectify his date of birth. The ministry of defence stubbornly rejected his petitions at every level forcing him to approach the Supreme Court in January 2012. First Services’ Chief to do so.

General’s age row was a simple service matter. It was mishandled by the government and blown out of proportion. A ten-month additional tenure for General Singh, consequent to reconciliation of his age would not have harmed the prospects of Army. He was a professionally competent general; Army would have benefitted from his continued presence at the helm of affairs. Legal experts in service matters believe that any other government employee’s petition with similar merits (or demerits) would have received favourable dispensation from the ministry or the court. What followed post-Supreme Court verdict was perhaps the ugliest phase of relations between general and the government. An atmosphere of veiled hostility and distrust prevailed in the South Block and civil-military relations took a plunge. Progress of various proposals from the Army headquarters to the MoD on modernisation and acquisition got mired in bureaucratic delays. Staff officers processing the case files received a stock reply ‘come after 31st May’.

However, resilient general survived vilification campaigns which tried to paint him as a plotter of coup d’etat, a snooper and someone who was using the media to embarrass the government. The machinations were reminiscent of twelfth century Delhi, when palace intrigues were a commonplace. Conspirators nearly got the scalp of the general, when many members of parliament cutting across the party lines, were seen baying for his ‘olive green’ blood when a letter written by him to the Prime Minister citing crippling deficiencies in the Army was leaked to the media.

Reaction of the ministry of defence to these stories, which broke out at regular intervals, despite being linked with national security, remained muted. The MoD neither denied nor confirmed a particular story to put down speculations and clear the air. That helped general’s detractors to show him in poor light with Machiavellian intent. All so-called inquiries ordered by the MoD to unravel these sinister plots have remained inconclusive so far.

The complicity of General Singh in all these stories gets automatically nullified because the government did not pluck courage to sack him. Had there been an iota of substance in the coup d’etat theory or snooping story or letter leak case, the general would have been shown the door. Similarly, general’s past track record was so impeccable that no skeleton could be found by the agencies to confront him. Was it an orchestrated campaign against a well-meaning general who was pitted against the corrupt system and had courage to speak his mind? If yes, who were its protagonists with what motive?

General VK Singh demits office, shorn of friends and well-wishers in the establishment of which he was a part of. It would be difficult to assess his contribution towards Army’s modernisation, orientation towards revolution in military affairs and its operational readiness. But he did a great service to the organisation by bringing to the fore the issue of critical deficiencies, slow pace of modernisation and the casual manner in which different ministries were dealing with infrastructure development projects in the northeast, which are crucial to armed forces’ operational preparedness along Sino-India border. Some of these pending issues, after ‘letter leak’ and intervention from the PMO have been fast-tracked.

Besides his much publicised crusade against the corruption in the Army, the general also took a principled stand against withdrawal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act from Jammu and Kashmir and Manipur and drawing Army into anti-Naxal operations. Concept of raising of a mountain strike corps for the country’s Northern borders is said to be his idea, which is coming to fruition.

The General will be remembered for exposing prevailing corruption in the Army and the MoD. It is no more a guess work. Contours of corruption within the organisation have been laid bare by him for others to cure the malady. Complicity of senior officers in various scams does not shock us anymore. For restoring general public’s confidence in armed forces a through cleansing operation would be needed.

What are General’s post-retirement plans? Joining politics appears to be most likely. If ex-servicemen rallies attended by him towards the fag end of his tenure are any indication we may soon see him entering active politics from Haryana or Rajasthan, which has a sizeable population of ex-serviceman and happens to be a large catchment area for recruitment in the armed forces and para-military forces.

The ever-smiling general was a great survivor and more than a match for wily politicians, snob bureaucrats and scheming lobbyists. He timed his moves well and delivered counterstrokes with such deftness that outclassed them. The General could stare in the eye of civilian establishment and make it wink.

The standoff between Army and MoD has highlighted the need to redefine the civil-military relations as of equal stakeholders and not as master and slave.

ANOTHER BEGINS

General Bikram Singh has taken over the reins of the Indian Army as its 25th Chief of Army Staff (COAS). He hails from the Sikh Light Infantry—second officer after General VP Malik from the same regiment to have achieved this singular honour.

General Singh’s ascension to Army Chief’s appointment became apparent to the watchers once his predecessor General VK Singh had agreed to be promoted as an Army commander by accepting his date of birth as May 10, 1950. Since then General’s name has become part and parcel of all controversies that followed. The irony projected him in the media as a ‘preferred choice’ of the government, as General VK Singh’s successor, every time the petitions filed by his predecessor were rejected. General’s tenure as COAS would last little more than the shelf life of the UPA government; during which many important decisions will hopefully be taken to transform the shape, size and structure of the Indian Army.


 Military Matters

NEW CHIEF AND CHALLENGES


Human memory may be short but institutional memory is eternal and highly sensitive to all issues that affect its health and standing. Therefore, the institutional history is most unforgiving and never condones any act of transgression that brings disrepute to its character. Indian Army as an institution is proud of its non-partisan disposition and well-evolved merit-based promotion system.

Devious tweaking of the system by a parochial Chief to ensure elevation of his protégé will always be remembered as a black episode in the history of the Indian Army. In a hierarchy based organisation like the Army, such transgressions have a complex cascading effect on the complete line of succession for higher ranks has been distorted. Many deserving officers have got left out.

End of May 2012 will see a change of guard at the apex of the Indian Army. Assumption of the appointment by the Chief-designate will mark the triumph of parochialism over justice. Therefore, he will have to carry the burden of an acute guilt-complex. He knows that the environment is aware of the manipulations that facilitated his rise the current incumbent has been deceitfully deprived of his full tenure and the careers of many brilliant officers who could have posed a challenge to his advancement were ruthlessly ruined.

To be trusted is the greatest compliment that a leader can earn. It flourishes on the credibility that a leader enjoys in his command. On the other hand, partisanship is an impropriety of the worst kind and erodes credibility of leaders and undermines their standing in the eyes of the led. Being a beneficiary of partisan dispensation, the new Chief will have to work hard to prove his impartial credentials. One wonders as to how he would muster the moral courage to exhort troops to trust the organisation and have faith in the justness of the system. For a military leader, it is the most unenviable situation to be in.

Additionally, the new incumbent will be hard pressed to put up with many disconcerting situations. With what face will he face the outgoing Chief to accept the baton? Similarly, having usurped the appointment that should have rightfully gone to the Northern Army Commander, it will be tough for him to interact with him.

The present Chief will be going out on a moral high. Despite a massive slander campaign launched by the purchased media and some inimical elements, his reputation as an incorruptible leader and a professionally upright commander remains intact. Having faced the wrath of a corrupt, manipulated and prejudiced environment, he will be long remembered for his attempts at cleansing the system. The new Chief will have to contend with his predecessor’s unblemished reputation and live up to it.

Two serious cases are pending finalisation. A writ petition is pending in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court seeking an enquiry into his alleged involvement in a fake encounter that resulted in the death of an innocent person. He is also being accused of command failure during his tenure with the UN peacekeeping force in Congo and a court of enquiry is in progress. Conviction under either of the cases will make his position untenable.

Finally, one wonders if it has ever crossed the mind of the Chief-designate that it would have been far more honorable to retire as an upright Army Commander than to become the Chief through questionable means. History will never forget the conspiracy and the subterfuge that facilitated his elevation turning the national motto ‘Satyamev Jayate’ on its head. It should never be forgotten that when history judges key players in retrospect, it is always unsparing and ruthless in exposing their misdemeanors.

 By Major General Mrinal Suman


A COAS has many roles. First, within the Army he is a father figure, a role model and decision-maker on internal issues. Second, for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) he is a figurehead who could become a rubber stamp or a game changer if he endeavours to work the system in a positive and assertive manner. He is denied direct access to the Defence Minister or cabinet committee on security and has to go through the MoD or defence secretary. Third, for the general public he is an icon larger than life, wielding sword-arm of the nation, who like Caesar’s wife must be above all suspicion. The politicians treat him like any other bureaucrat. The media sees the COAS as just another newsfiller – the more negative or controversial the better.

General Bikram Singh brings with him diverse professional experience. Many people still recall him for his daily briefings on television during Kargil War. He was at the helm of perspective plans division of Army headquarters when the tenth Army plan was on the anvil. Tenth Army plan provided a fresh impetus to Indian Army’s modernisation. He commanded the Srinagar-based 15 Corps during the height of civil unrest. General is fresh from the Eastern Command, where the Chinese have a worrisome military presence close to the borders of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim and Bhutan and Nepal.

The General takes over the Army at the time when civil-military relations need mending. Proposals from the Army on modernisation and acquisitions have hit a roadblock. Reopening of the channels of communication with MoD for speedy disposal of the cases would be a priority for him. However, the civil-military relations should be on equal terms as stakeholders and not as master-slave. The latter perception has prevailed in the corridors power for too long to be accepted any longer by younger generation of military professionals.

Consequent to MoD enhancing the financial powers of Services’ Headquarters from Rupees 500 million to 1500 million for a single purchase would imply that Army hones its skills and procedures for defining general staff qualitative requirements and drafting the request for proposals accurately. Army will be now a single agency for finalising most of its small and medium-ticket purchases and cannot blame the MoD for the delays any longer.


 “I WILL NOT SWEEP ANYTHING UNDER THE CARPET”— Gen Bikram Singh


Just before taking over as the new Army Chief, Lt General Bikram Singh, GOC in C, Eastern Command, Indian Army, in an interview with Kamalika Sengupta discussed at length all issues but was skeptical of saying anything against General Vijay Kumar Singh. Excerpts:

Q     You are taking over as the Army Chief at a time when Army and Army Chief are going through so much controversies?

I believe forces require media support. I was a strategic specialist and the spokesperson during the Kargil war. If we criticise then it is defaming our own force which is never a good signal for our nation. Believe me everything is just fit and fine.

Q     According to you, why are all these things happening?

I don’t want to say anything but I believe that forces should have space in democracy but it should not spill out into bureaucratic and political arena.

Q     How do you plan to move forward?

Sees military is the strength of the country, therefore it is my request to everyone to be together and support the military and we know how to handle things. I’ll not sweep anything under the carpet.

Q     How do you see India’s relationship with China?

Wait…I’ll say on this issue only when I’ll be on the chair. so please…

Q     What was your feeling when you heard that you would be the next Army Chief?

I am thankful to the Government of India and my parents.

Q     What really inspired you to join the force?

During 1962 and 1965 wars, I was a kid and used to jump into the drenches and bunkers in my native village in Punjab. From then on I wanted to join the Army and 1968 my dream was fulfilled when I joined the National Defence Academy.

Q     Are you tensed that you will be sitting in the hot seat in few hours from now?

Fear and tension are uncommon words in the Army. My first priority will be damage control.

Q     What damage control will you do immediately after taking over as Army Chief?

I’ll try to bring into shape the Army, first.

Q     Back in shape means that the Army is not in good shape?

{He avoided the answer} Good question, you are a good journalist. Have Tea…

Q     Congratulations once again and good wishes for the new assignment to lead the Army?

Thank you very much.


A review of internal health of the organisation would be in order. Incident of mass disobedience by the troops of an artillery unit at Nyoma, Ladakh, one hopes and pray is not a part of some bigger malaise.

Unfortunately, in recent times, the media has been used brazenly by Army’s senior brass. This practice, if percolates down to the lower echelons of command structure would be grave. To desist officers and troops from reverting to the media for grievance redressal, re-establishment of their faith in the system and its fair play would need General’s attention.

There would be some tough decisions to be taken regarding honesty and integrity. Presence of corrupt and corruption in the Army has been proved beyond reasonable doubt. A system cleansing effort without hampering the acquisition processes and day to day business would be needed.

It would be a tough call for the Army on the internal security matters. The issue of repealing or diluting the Armed Forces Special Powers Act from Jammu & Kashmir and Manipur is still unsettled. There were also serious deliberations on how to make Army undertake anti-Naxal operations in Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Jharkhand, where the Army has so far agreed to open a training facility in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. Previous Army Chief had assiduously resisted the involvement of Army in anti-Naxal operations. With the changing of the guard in the Army headquarters, it would be tempting for the ministry of home affairs and state chief ministers to bring up these issues for reconsideration.

The General, consequent to Supreme Court’s decision on Pathribal encounter, will be faced with an unpleasant task of opting for the trial of the accused in the case through a court martial or in a criminal court. The decision will impact Army’s operations in internal security situations.

In external security situation, the Chinese issue needs to be addressed with alacrity it deserves. Defensive and strike capabilities along the Sino-Indian borders to match Chinese preparedness needs to be taken seriously. The pending issue of raising of a mountain strike corps or equipping existing formations with better military hardware is something, given to the first-hand knowledge of the situation that General has, would be on top of his priority list.

Indo-Pak relations have often been flagged to Siachen Glacier issue by peaceniks of both the countries. There is, for no sound strategic reasons, a growing clamour for demilitarisation of Siachen Glacier at the expense and cost of Indian Army. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s pending visit to Pakistan is also hostage to the outcome of Siachen settlement. With defence secretary level talks on Siachen in Islamabad scheduled during June 2012, the Army may be asked to revisit its stand on Siachen.

General Bikram Singh takes over the command of Indian Army at the time when it is at the cusp of transformation from a traditional Army to a modern Army. The Army is undergoing a process of change—for better. There is a social churning in the organisation, which needs to be moderated by senior leaders. The changes are in many areas—aspirations, personnel and inter-personal relations, personal conduct, integrity—both professional & financial, probity, professionalism, selection process at the senior levels, quality, transparency and media exposure. It will be most satisfying for General Bikram Singh if he leads Army through the transition successfully.

 

By Colonel (RETD) US Rathore

(The author is a defence and security expert and threat and risk analyst)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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